the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. Traditional Interpretation:
The word occurs but once, namely, in 2 Kings 18:4 . In the account there given of the reforms carried out by Hezekiah, it is said that "he brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan." According to the Revised Version margin the word means "a piece of brass." If this be correct, the sense of the passage is that Hezekiah not only breaks the brazen serpent in pieces but, suiting the word to the act, scornfully calls it "a (mere) piece of brass." Hezekiah thus takes his place as a true reformer, and as a champion of the purification of the religion of Israel. This is the traditional interpretation of the passage, and fairly represents the Hebrew text as it now stands.
There are at least three considerations, however, which throw doubt upon this interpretation. In the first place, the word Nehushtan is not a common noun, and cannot mean simply "a piece of brass." The point of the Biblical statement is entirely lost by such a construction. It is emphatically a proper noun, and is the special name given to this particular brazen serpent. As such it would be sacred to all worshippers of the brazen serpent, and familiar to all who frequented the Temple. In the second place, it is probable that Nehushtan is to be derived from
Whichever derivation be adopted, however, the word must be construed as a proper name. If it be derived from "brass," then the translation must be, not "a piece of brass," but "The (great) Brass," giving the word a special sense by which it refers unequivocally to the well-known image made of brass. If it be derived from "serpent," then the translation must be, "The (great) Serpent," the word in this case referring in a special sense to the well-known image in serpent form. But the significance of the word probably lies far back of any etymological explanation of it that can now be given. It is not a term that can be adequately explained by reference to verbal roots, but is rather an epitome of the reverence of those who, however mistakenly, looked upon the brazen serpent as a proper object of worship.
In view of the foregoing it may be concluded, (1) that Nehushtan was the (sacred) name by which the brazen serpent was known during the years "the children of Israel did burn incense to it"; (2) that the word is derived from
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Nehushtan'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​n/nehushtan.html. 1915.